Researchers Snap First Ever Detailed Images of Newborns’ Lungs

Using electrical impedance tomography and a small silk belt, the team managed a non-invasive procedure.
Fabienne Lang

In a first, researchers have captured detailed images of newborn babies' lungs as they take their first breaths.

Led by researchers at Melbourne's Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MRCI) in Australia, the team's breakthrough helps better understand the process in which babies take their first breaths, why they do it, and how to increase survival rates of preterm babies and their long term outcomes. 

The study was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

What the study means for newborns

About 10 percent of newborns and nearly all preterm babies require resuscitation because they're unable to fill their lungs with air right after birth. The study's researchers explain that in medicine, a newborn baby's first breath is one of the most poorly understood respiratory events due to lack of imaging.

This leads to babies being placed in long-term intensive care, or developing long-term issues. 

To try and counter this, the MCRI team used electrical impedance tomography (EIT) and a small silk belt that wraps around the infant's chest to capture highly-detailed images of its lungs.

The team didn't need to use any radiation or disrupt intensive care. All of which are highly positive, especially when treating a newborn baby. 

The importance of understanding how babies take their first breaths is clearly demonstrated by doctors and nurses who "are pleased to hear those first life-affirming cries when a baby is born. Crying is a process that quickly aerates the lung, which is why 80 percent of all breaths immediately after birth are cries," said David Tingay of MCRI.

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"Just after birth the lung is still at risk of collapsing and the air-spaces can refill with fluid when a baby is breathing out," he continued.

So these first breaths are crucial for many reasons. 

Up until this study, doctors lacked interventions to support breathing after birth, which influences infant mortality rates, disease, and resource allocation. 

"We hope that being able to see these unique breathing patterns in the delivery room will tell clinicians when a baby needs resuscitation and also guide how effective that resuscitation is," Tingay explained.